Peter Stothard’s The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher

senecans-stothard-51dv9clhtalAlthough I look forward to voting for Hillary Clinton (our first woman president, yes?),  I am not particularly interested in politics.

Unless it’s ancient politics.

And I am a fan of Peter Stothard, so I picked up his new book.

In this lively new memoir,  The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher, he compares Margaret Thatcher to Nero and her advisors to Nero’s court, especially to Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who was Nero’s tutor and political advisor. As a deputy editor at the London Times, Stothard met often with Thatcher’s four main advisors, who gave him background for The Times’ political articles.  And they shared his interest in Seneca.

Stothard, an Oxford-educated classicist, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement (he retired this year) and  editor of The London Times from 1992-2002, is an elegant, lyrical, witty writer whose style transcends journalism.  He has written two brilliant memoirs, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra (about his fascination with Cleopatra which I wrote about here and here) and  The Spartacus Road (which I wrote about here).

Even if you are not interested in English history and politics (and the only English history I know, she reveals self-mockingly, is the Tudors via Hilary Mantel and Jean Plaidy), this is a rich, complex, engrossing book. His account of the scenes behind the scenes of power are fascinating, if often grotesque, and I also learned much about the scenes behind the scenes in the newspaper business.  But the real hook for classicists and former Latin teachers like me? He organized a Latin class for the four men at a pub  and reviewed/taught conjugations and declensions and read and discussed Seneca.

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

The catalyst for The Senecans is a series of interviews in 2014 by a Miss R., a young historian researching the Thatcher era.  And Stothard was packing up his office for a move from Wapping, where he had worked for 30 years, so it was a good time for reminiscence.

Of the four main advisors in Thatcher’s court, Frank Johnson, David Hart, Sir Ronald Millar, and Lord Woodrow Wyatt, Stothard was most fascinated at first by David Hart, a playwright and film-maker as well as a politician. Stothard compared him to the Roman novelist Petronius’s famous character,  “a fictional tycoon called Trimalchio, a creation of a satire by one of Seneca’s own fellow courtiers in the age of Nero, a generous host who terrorized his guests with the theatre of food.”

Sir Ronald Millar disagreed with Stothard about David and Trimalchio.

David was not like Petronius’ monster.  Nor, however, Sir Ronald had to admit, was he quite unlike him either.  I was keen on Latin novels then. There are not many of them to read.  Gaius Petronius was one of the first comic novelists (his grander fans included T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence) and he wrote about food, drink, flattery, death and defecation.  He was Nero’s ‘arbiter of taste’, pet prose master and eventual victim.  Or, at least, some scholars think that he was.  Some think that there was more than one Petronius.  Gaius may not have been the name of either.  There is always uncertainty in distant history, almost always too in the kind that is close.


    Loeb edition

(Petronius’s Satyricon, or Satyrica, is one of my favorite books.)

All the advisors had very different backgrounds.  Frank Johnson, another writer at The Times, disagreed wtih Stothard’s journalistic philosophy: he disliked Stothard’s investigations of political corruption and scandals and thought The Times should only publish analyses biased in favor of Thatcher and the right.  (Later Johnson became an op/ed editor.)  But it was Frank who wanted Stothard to teach him Latin:  the two of them saved the Loebs (a series of classical texts with the Latin or Greek on the left page and the literal translation on the right) from a dumpster when the Times Library discarded them.

Frank wanted to read Cicero, but Stothard chose Seneca as their  subject.  They retired to The Old Rose, a pub, to “do” their Latin verbs and read Seneca.    Ronnie, a trained classicist and veteran playwright,  joined their Latin classes because he saw Seneca as a model politician who manipulated people and had lots of experience with cover-ups.  Woodrow Wyatt, a political journalist and former Labour MP turned right-wing, showed up soon, as did Hart…  They discussed Seneca’s philosophy, wealth, politics, and hypocrisy.

Stothard also writes about Beryl Bainbridge, literary cocktail parties, and collecting first editions and manuscripts.  He recommends Alan Hollinghurst’s  Man Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty as the best novel about the Thatcher Era.  (I read it and loved it.)

And he connects this book to Alexandria with more about his childhood and his friend V, a radical girl who was the daughter of Mr. V, a right-wing fanatic who had a sculpture of Seneca made from balsa wood…

What a good read!  Really colorful and enjoyable.  You can read it for the writing or the classics or the history or the politics.

In Which I Discover I Have the Same Notebook as Miss R in Peter Stothard’s “The Senecans”

senecans-stothard-51dv9clhtalI am  behind on book blogging, as some of you may have noticed, whether because of the recent trip to London or the waning of light–who knows?  And I am also behind on reading new books.  (I do intend to read one a week.).  Right now I am in the midlle of Peter Stothard’s engrossing book, The Senecans:  Four Men and Margaret Thatcher.

Stothard, a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and The London Times, is not only a journalist but also an Oxford-educated classicist who has written two other  brilliant books, Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra and On the Spartacus Road. I come to this book through my love of classics, but many will be drawn to the history and politics.  In this gracefully-written memoir,  he recounts his fascination with Nero and Seneca and compares Thatcher to Nero and at least one of her advisors to  Seneca.  (As a young editor at the Times, he met with them regularly.)

The catalyst for the book is, in part, a series of interviews by a Miss R., a young historian researching the Thatcher era.  She questions Stothard about his journalistic relationships with Thatcher and her advisors Stothard’s prose is always sharp, observant, and often lyrical. (More about this next week.)

He is also witty and often very funny.  I burst out laughing when Miss R. shows up at Stothard’s office with a new notebook labelled Seneca..

When Miss R arrives today she is most pleased by her own notebook, smug I would say but don’t.  This is not a new electronic device.  She holds it so that I can see the printed name, with a stamp from Foyles bookshop, SENECA, its cover page orange and the next place lemon, both colours faintly silvered.  The printed letters of the name are blue-black, the colour of her nail varnish.  SENECA belongs to one of the bookseller’s SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT.

I have the same notebook!  Well, almost.

I couldn’t seem to get out of  Foyles. I bought two  of these small School of Life notebooks. Why?  They remind me of the blue books we wrote exams in. (I always liked the look of those blue books.)

I didn’t find Miss R’s Seneca notebook, but I have Heidigger and Caulfield.

I love notebooks.  I have so many.

Here are some other notebooks I have loved:

The Semikolon notebooks are a tiny bit bigger than the School of Life.  They also fit in a purse.  I used the purple when I tutored a Greek student.  And I took notes in the orange notebook during my mother’s hospitalization a few years ago: “She seemed depressed today.  She didn’t want to cooperate with the PT.  She stopped in the hall after about 10 feet and said she wanted to rest.  The PT said, “Two more rooms and we can rest, okay?”)

I love the paperback Apica notebooks.  The “Ideas for blog” notebook had a a few ideas for a blog, then turned into a bicycling journal.

I used the Miquelius 4 notebook to prep for an adult ed Latin class a few years ago.  (I am teaching indirect statement–which you can see if you can read my indecipherable writing.  And if you can read it, I’ll give you a free book.)  The smaller one is full of lists.

I have so many notebooks.  Too many notebooks.  What is your favorite notebook (if there is a brand)?

Can a Book Inspire You to Read Latin?

Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens gloria Teucrorum .–Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II

“We were Trojans; Ilium and the great glory of the Trojans are gone.”

Many years ago I read Virgil, Ovid, and Horace in translation.  I was puzzled:  why were these classics?  Somehow the poetry didn’t translate gracefully.  My friends and I gossiped:  “Men romanticize this so much.”  But I had a nagging sense that something was missing.  And so I studied Latin, learned that English and Latin have different structures, discovered I have a Latinate brain, went to graduate school, taught in private schools for a few years (like most of my fellow classicists), and have continued to read Latin poetry for decades.

Not everyone can study Latin, but books can  inspire you to read Roman authors, or to return to them.

Seven Sisters margaret drabbleIn  Margaret Drabble’s extraordinary 2002 novel, The Seven Sisters, I was fascinated by the narrator’s fascination with Virgil’s AeneidThe Aeneid is my favorite poem, and I have tried in vain to get fellow bloggers to read it.  (You know who you are.)

Candida, the ex-wife of a headmaster who jettisoned her for the mother of a student who drowned in a pond on the school grounds, has moved to an apartment in West London.  She is solitary, almost friendless, and far from her family, and the big event of her day is swimming at a Health Club, which has not always been a health club:  it was converted from a College of Further Education that in the evenings held adult classes.  Candida had taken a Virgil class there, which involved not only reading Virgil in Latin but comparing translations by Dryden, C. Day Lewis, and others.

You wouldn’t think you could go to an evening class on Virgil’s Aeneid in West London at the end of the twentieth century, would you?  And if fact you can’t anymore as it’s closed. …Why did I join it?  Because its very existence seemed so anachronistic and so improbable.  Because I thought it would keep my mind in shape.  Because I thought it might find me a friend.  Because I thought it might find me the kind of friend that I would not have known in my former life.

Candida, who is obviously depressed, is obsessed with Book VI of The Aeneid, which describes the descent of Aeneas into the underworld, and dovetails with her own obsession with death.  Eventually she is inspired to organize a Latin class reunion and a life-affirming Virgilian trip  to Italy.

Drabble’s book influenced me to consider teaching again.  We had moved to a lovely, quiet city that “had no culture,” as I was told.  It definitely had no Latin.  I had no job.  I was hanging around the house, reading all of Virgil, when I wasn’t alphabetizing the books at a very messy used bookstore.  (I was paid in books.)

Why not get out of the house and teach adult ed?  I wondered.  And so I taught a very traditional Latin class, using Wheelock’s Latin as the text. We also translated a short Latin passage from The Aeneid every week, with a great deal of help from me in the form of vocabulary lists and worksheets.

How to Read a Latin Poem William FitzgeraldI believed my idea of reading Virgil in Latin with students who knew little or no Latin was original (or perhaps I had borrowed from Drabble). But after reading Roy Gibson’s review of William Fitzgerald’s new book, How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet in this week’s TLS, I discovered that other classicists are doing this kind of reading.

Roy Gibson, the reviewer, is a classicist, who likes Fitzgerald’s book and is mostly positive.  He writes,

…it has a serious purpose:  to give the reader with little or no knowledge of Latin or the classical world a feel for the character of Roman poetry in the original language.  We are offered word=by-word analysis and translation of classic texts, with deft explanation of how meaning gradually emerges from a language which (unlike English) does not depend on word order to create sense. This is a necessary task.  Some ancient poets translate rather well into English (Catullus, Ovid), but readers who have encountered Virgil or Horace’s Odes only in translation can feel justified in wondering what the fuss is about.  Fitzgerald proves an inspiring guide to the richness and (rarely emphasized) strangeness of Virgil’s Latin.  He also offers stimulating asides on the stark juxtapositions of vocabulary that are inevitable in a language which dispense with definite and indefinite articles and has no need of many of the prepositions which litter English.

He says, however, that Fitzgerald glosses over the amount of work involved in reading Latin.  Professionals use commentaries and dictionaries, and some passages remain controversial or ambiguous.

Of course I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book, but it is the kind of thing I would give to friends to help them understand Latin poetry.

Alexandria peter stothardIn Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Days and Nights of Cleopatra, a  brilliant memoir of his fascination with Cleopatra, he writes a few pages about reading Latin poetry with those who don’t know Latin.  Stothard, a classicist and the editor of the TLS,  chaired a panel on how to read a Latin poem, saying it is “the kind of appointment that come to an Editor of the TLS with interests in the ancient world.”  The panel read and discussed an ode by Horace addressed to Plancus, a shrewd man of middle rank  who was devoted to Marc Antony until the tides of politics changed. Stothard had extensively researched Plancus for his book about Cleopatra.

Stothard  writes:

The choice of poem was not mine.  Plancus followed me by purest chance.  ‘Laudabunt alii‘ we all began at 10.00 a.m.  A light-pointer identified each word:  ‘will praise’ was followed by ‘other men.’  Laudabunt alii claram Rhodon aut Mytilenen aut Ephesum bimarisve Corinthi moenia:  Others will praise bright Rhodes, or Mytilene, or Ephesus or the walls of Corinth on its two seas. The audience had come to read it in Latin–and it was my task to help them do just that.

Then there is classicist Mary Beard’s blog, A Don’s Life. She recently wrote a very interesting post about participating in a debate on The Future of Latin.

What came over most clearly — and clearer than I had ever seen it before — was the way we have projected onto Latin so many of our anxieties about privilege in education, teaching quality and the personality of the traditional teacher, ideas of utility, the control of the curriculum etc. Latin in other words is so much of a symbol that it is hard to discuss it without getting involved in series of much bigger debates, only symbolically connected with Latin.

Cicero EverittAntony Everitt’s Cicero:  The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician is a fascinating biography of Cicero, and a very clear, accessible history of the politics of the first century B.C.

Everitt writes in the preface:

With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figure….

…nearly two thousand years after his time, he became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives.   For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of Tully (as his name was anglicized) were the foundation of their education.  John Adams’ first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.

Professor's House catherLet me also mention Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, which is not about Rome but nonetheless describes the life of Tom Outland, a student Latinist.   Professor St. Peter, a disenchanted historian of early Spanish explorers, camps out one summer in the old empty house, too depressed to follow his very conventional family to the new house they have built. And he often remembers his student Tom Outland, who died young; we learn in the middle part of the novel that during a summer in the Southwest Tom read all of The Aeneid in Latin.  St. Peter’s conversation with a greedy colleague who is about to benefit from Outland’s research causes him to connect Tom with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony.

 The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man.  Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that:  a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings of revolution.

He brought himself back with a jerk.  Ah, yes, Crane; that was the trouble.  If Outland were here tonight, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men.

I recommend the Fagles translation.

Finally, let me recommend Virgil’s Aeneid in translation. This stunning epic poem about the founding of Rome is translated beautifully into English by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald, and this cannot be said about very much poetry in any foreign language.  This classic poem describes the fatigue of the depressed hero, Aeneas, forced by last-man-standing fate to lead the refugees from Troy, the allure of a foreign queen, Dido, who is really Cleopatra and Medea combined, and the gods that force him to continue his trip to Italy, which leads to yet another war.

Finishing Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Alexandria peter stothardI have very much enjoyed Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra. (I wrote a little about it here.)  Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and a former editor of The London Times, has written a brilliant memoir about his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra.

I can see the structure more clearly now that I’ve finished the book:  not only is he writing about Cleopatra, but also about the parallels between Cleopatra’s Alexandria in the first century B.C., and the Alexandria of 2011 when the chaos of the Arab Spring  begins.

Some of the same photos and art appear and reappear in the book, presumably as part of the arrangement of  the text (unless I am becoming Carrie in a manic stage in “Homeland.”).  George Scholz’s “Seated Nude with Plaster Bust” appears three times, and captures Stothard’s image of Cleopatra more closely than the other art.

Georg Scholz, "Seated nude with plaster bust."

Georg Scholz, “Seated nude with plaster bust.”

Stothard had gone to Alexandria in 2011 to finish his book; he arrived on what happened to be the eve of the Arab Spring. He had made seven attempts to write about Cleopatra, beginning when he was nine in Essex (“Professor Rame and the Egyptian Queen”) and most recently in the 1980s when he was a business reporter for The London Times. And he writes so charmingly about his time at Oxford, his work for an in-house Big Oil magazine, and his beginnings as a business journalist at the Times ( mid-’80s?) that the book is worth reading just for that.

He has survived cancer, written two “diary” books, and is  no longer a working journalist (except in the literary sense).  He does not want to report on the bombings and riots of the Arab Spring. He kept his focus on Cleopatra.  Although there are few artefacts of Cleopatra’s Alexandria,  and little is known about her, he does not allow himself to be distracted from his goal.  And he absorbs the atmosphere of the city.

His friends from childhood and Oxford, Maurice, a gay writer in advertising who is dying of cancer, and V, the rebellious, questioning woman with whom he saw the movie Cleopatra in the ’60s when they were teenagers, have kept him focused on Cleopatra.  When Stothard visits Maurice when he is dying,  Maurice asks about Cleopatra.

So what did happen to Cleopatra in the end?  He asked the question again.  I was feeling defensive.  It was absurd that I had never finished my book.  I began a defence of how Big Oil, Mrs. Thatcher, the 1986 print revolution for the press, the editing of The Times and The Times Literary Supplement…and other books about Tony Blair and Spartacus, had all found a higher priority.

Peter stothard smiling in front of bookcase

Peter Stothard

This is strangely touching.  He knows he has accomplished a lot, but there is still this vulnerability with a friend who has always known him:  maybe this is not what he should have done?  He should have been writing a scholarly biography and editing a newspaper?  But it turns out Maurice isn’t interested in the book.  He wants to know about Cleopatra’s suicide (presumably not by an asp, probably a fast-working poison).

Stothard writes about the image of Cleopatra in literature and the arts:   Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the Elizabeth Taylor movie, H. Rider Haggard’s historical novel, Cleopatra, a Dutch painting.  He says Plutarch’s portrayal of Marc Antony (which I haven’t read, because I have the wrong book by Plutarch) is the most reliable. He also includes a version of Horace’s Cleopatra ode,  Nunc est bibendum (“Now is the time for drinking…”)  and I’m not sure whose translation this is:  I assume it is Stothard’s, but perhaps not.)

James Holladay, an ancient history teacher at Oxford, advises him to concentrate on middlemen.

Bureaucratic power was always essential.  Never forget that.  Look at the men in the middle ranks.  remember their names:  Hirtius, Plancus, Celllius, Canidius.  Study them closely.  Don’t give up when the going gets tough.  Nil desperandum, as Horace says.  Read the poem in which he says it.”

Stothard is fascinating especially about Plancus, who changed sides,  and “was the closest man to Antony and then abandoned him.”  He tells us  about Cleopatra after the Battle of Actium.  She tries to change the story, and to convince people there was no Battle of Actium.  Of course it catches up with her.

There is a rich texture to his language, and a frequent lyricism: sometimes I could almost scan the prose rhythms (possibly Carrie in “Homeland” again) when he  is in Khat Rashid for a few day, out of the way of the terrorists in Alexandria.

Look harder, till the eyes hurt.  In the vacant dark the site of the sometime lighthouse is shining too, many miles and two thousand years away.  The sky is the color of bruises, a punched cheek, a prayer-beaten forehead, an eye becoming black.  This is not where I wanted to spend the night.  But it is a fine place to look back at Alexandria and consider the last hours of Marc Antony, the time when he knew he had lost, when he was abandoned by the city’s gods.  Any biography of Cleopatra is now in its final stage.

He also eerily discovers at the new Alexandrian library an Egyptian dialogue in French, Mort ou Amour, “in which a historian in an Alexandrian hotel room struggles to write a book about Cleopatra.  The dramatic hero does most of the things that I have done here since I arrived ruefully recalling past efforts, weighing fact against fiction, realism against romance, ‘la politique ou le coeur’ as motivation for peace and war.”

It made me oddly anxious, and I thought, This must not be real. But the author does exist:  I looked him up.   Stothard dismisses it as a coincidence but is it?

This work of literary nonfiction is a great jumble of history, travel, biography, memoir, and literature, and it should please a diverse audience:  historians, classicists, general readers, and memoir lovers. ( I fall into the last three categories.)  I have seldom read a nonfiction book so fast.  I read 300 page one day.

What a great book. A classic?   One of my favorite books this year.  And, by the way–I can do recommendations well as the Amazon computer–if you liked Stothard’s book, you will like his other book, Spartacus Road, and  Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev.

Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Peter Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and a former editor of The London Times, has written a brilliant memoir, Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, centered on his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra.

Alexandria peter stothardStothard traveled to Alexandria in 2011 when an ice storm prevented his flight to South Africa. He wanted to finish a book about Cleopatra; he had made seven attempts to write about her over the last 50 years.  He rents a room at the Metropole Hotel in Alexandria.  It is so small that he stands up to write in his notebook.

He looks over the  yellowed old papers he has brought with him and explains “the first efforts [were] of an Essex schoolboy; the latest from the 1980s from a classicist finding some sort of success as a journalist.  Between these beginnings and ends, which show uneven patterns of progress, there are pages written in Oxford between 1969 and 1971 and at an oil company desk in 1976, and in the Calthorpe Arms, a crepuscular pub beside what were the offices of The Times.”

Much of his writing about Cleopatra is lost, but he feels confident that he can fill in the lacunae by writing a diary in Alexandria.  Much of the history of Cleopatra has been lost, too, though recently something new has been found, the ginestho papyrus.  Cleopatra had written, ginestho , “Let it happen,” in Greek, approving Mark Antony’s general’s export of 300 tonnes of wheat  and 130,000 litres of wine without taxation.

Stothard arrived in Alexandria on the eve of the Arab Spring.  There is a bombing, and everyone is jittery.  He spends time with two Egyptians, who befriend him, take him sightseeing, decide what he can and can’t see, and speculate about the terrorists.

Stothard writes about what is happening in Egypt, but doesn’t report on it.  He brilliantly zeroes in on bits of his life that are connected to Cleopatra.

Much of the book is a memoir of his classical education and his working life as a journalist.

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

He grew up in Essex, the son of a radar engineer:   Stothard adds ironically that his father was “a designer of military machines that made us safe.”   There were only five books in the house, one of them the Loeb edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, Books VII-XII. (This is the only book he has brought with him to Alexandria.)  Stothard’s first attempt to write about Cleopatra was when he was nine,  a story, “Professor Rame and the Egyptian Queen.”

He studied Greek and Latin in the ’60s at Brentwood School in Essex, and then studied classics at Oxford.  Many of his teachers at Brentwood were war veterans, some unstable.  Miss Leake, the headmistress of his first school, idealized Brentwood: she thought the teachers were “earnest, slender, slightly socialist young men who visited her from time to time, asking if she had anyone who might excel at soccer or Cicero.  This was an honest mistake.  Behind Brentwood’s Martyr’s Memorial many eccentric instructors lay hidden including Mr. G, an ex-soldier of cement-mixer voice and stature, a survivor of a war which had been unkinder, it seemed, than the one experience by my father and his floating radar engineers.”

Stothard got a great education at Brentwood, but the students also paid a price for some teachers’ post-traumatic stress disorder.  One teacher  beat them with a rubber hose.  One of Stothard’s  lifelong friends, Maurice, had to sit cramped under the teacher’s desk with another boy for some infraction of the rules; a friend at another school, an outspoken girl called V, thought the punishments so horrifying that they ought to revolt.  Yet Peter and his friend take the punishments for granted.  It is a part of their boys’ school world.  (One hopes such schools have improved since the ’60s, but most men I know who have gone to boys’ schools have told such stories).

Stothard also writes about Oxford, and I thought of Brideshead Revisited, which Stothard mentions in passing. It is the late ’60s and early ’70s, so less glamorous, presumably, than Waugh’s Oxford, but there are many fascinating, eccentric characters, and  his old friend Maurice, who turns out to be gay, asks him to write a play about Cleopatra in which Maurice can play all the parts. (Cleopatra is to be deconstructed.)  They end up instead putting on a short version of Aristophanes’ The Frogs.

Stothard’s writing is both fast-paced and lyrical, his voice tough and often humorous, and it often reads like fiction, which is the highest compliment I can pay.  I still have 100 pages to go:  his hilarious description of his work for an in-house oil magazine reminds me a bit of the office scenes in William Cooper’s Scenes from Metropolitan Life.

I will write more about this book later, because there is much more.  I, too, had a classical education, and am thrilled by his unique perspective on history and the classics.

Spartacus Road A Journey Through Ancient ItalyIn April I read his remarkable book, Spartacus Road:  A Personal Journey through Ancient Italy.  In it he fuses journalism, history, memoir, travel, biography, and reflections on the classics as he travels the Spartacus Road, the route Spartacus and his slave army traveled when they escaped from the gladiator school near Capua.

A great writer:  this is literary nonfiction.

Peter Stothard’s Spartacus Road

One of the best nonfiction books I read last year was Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love:  Travels with Turgenev, part biography of Turgenev, part memoir/travel book, and part literary criticisms.

Spartacus Road Peter StothardPeter Stothard’s Spartacus Road:  A Personal Journey through Ancient Italy is another unclassifiable volume of what I’ll call belles-lettres: part Roman history, part memoir/travel, part  analysis of literature pertaining to the history of the escaped slave Spartacus, part translations of Roman poetry and letters.

When Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and former editor of The London Times, suffered from pain from an undiagnosed cancer, he often experienced what he called “pain pictures,” vivid memories of his own past and also of scenes he knew from his classical education.   He hallucinated, or saw pain pictures, of Spartacus’s battles with the Romans, when “Nero,” as he referred to his cancer, tortured him.

Scenes from a classical education came unwilled.  During some of Nero’s visits I had vivid views of this first fight in the Spartacus war, not those of a general watching high up on a nearby hill but those of a soldier seeing what was close before his eyes.  It was as though I had been at the centre of this and other slaughters, hour after hour after hour.”

After he recovered from his illness, Stothard remained psychologically traumatized.  He had survived a rare cancer but could not put the experience behind him.  And so he decided to travel the Spartacus Road, the route Spartacus and his slave army traveled when they escaped from the gladiator school near Capua.  This strange but brilliant book fuses his journalism with his knowledge of the classics.

The book is a history of Spartacus, but it is also an often humorous 21st-century travel diary in which he discusses the tourist industry and the people he meets.  He pores over maps with a Korean teacher and her doctor husband, meets a priest who insists that he talk about his father, and encounters a peripatetic gladiator-actor who cannot play his part due to odd union rules, and who thus has become the  manager of  a woman who poses as a statue-like Virgin Mary.

Stothard is equally fascinated by the lives and views of Roman poets and historians. He begins by writing about Symmachus, a little-known politician of the late Roman Empire who wrote letters, edited texts of Livy, and understood the disasters of slave wars.  Stothard also delves into the famous poetry of Statius, Horace, and Lucretius, the histories of Sallust and Plutarch, the letters of Pliny, Cicero’s scorn of  Spartacus, and the Epicurean philosophy recorded mainly in Lucretius’s beautiful hexameters..

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

As Stothard speculates about Spartacus, about whom little is known, he wonders what kind of man this leader of the gladiators was.  He might have been calm, he might have been vicious.

Stothard writes:

He may have found the thinking hard.  He may be one of those who had survived his fights with fellow men and animals in the Arena but not the feelings that followed afterwards.  Psychological trauma is not a discovery of modern analysis alone.  The Romans knew about it too.  Anyone selling a slave who had fought a lion or bear had to declare that contest in a contract.  Attempted suicides had to be declared, even escapes.”

And I cannot help but think that  journalists may  also be gladiators, with widely different codes, some being resisters and heroes, others merely ambitious or vengeful.

Stothard interweaves personal memories with his travels, some of them serious, some of them funny.  He remembers seeing the Stanley Kubrick movie, Spartacus, on the walls of the chemistry lab at school in the ’60s, and is pleased when he manages to buy it from a Polish DVD seller on the street.   (He especially likes Jean Simmons as Varina.)  And I found this very comical because, during one of my rare intervals of teaching Latin in the ’80s, I showed Spartacus  on the VCR before Christmas break.  Some things never change.

I was drawn to Spartacus Road because I, too, have a classical background, and it seems natural to turn to the classics in a crisis.  I am not a historian, but I am fascinated by the poets, by Cicero and Pliny, and during one horrifying illness, infected by a deadly bug bite which the doctors could  treat only by trial and error of different medications administered through IVs, I recited all the lines of Roman poetry I could remember, thinking they would control the pain.  Since I had memorized only lines I made my students memorize, there were fewer than I needed.

Stothard’s voice is brilliant, creative, and very strong–there is no hint of uncertainty or weakness in his voice.  But  as the book goes on, it becomes a better, more original, less journalistic, book, and he occasionally shows his vulnerability, though never for longer than a paragraph.

This stunning book deftly balances the historical significance of Spartacus’s rebellion with Stothard’s very private war against cancer and struggle to be well.

What a great book.  A great pleasure to read, and astonishing that I found it.